- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2002

"There are so many miserable stories. People pick undigested beans out of the dung of oxen to eat. They compete to take the clothes off dead bodies to wear. It is not a human world."

That grim picture is one of the few glimpses inside the disaster that is North Korea. In the past few months, the world has learned more about the hermit kingdom's disturbing advancements in developing and proliferating components for weapons of mass destruction. This week, Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Jiang Zemin strongly cautioned the North's Kim Jong Il against pursuing his nuclear dreams and upsetting regional stability. Now, a compelling report from Human Rights Watch detailed accounts of life inside North Korea by a handful of an estimated hundreds of thousands of refugees makes the moral case for putting Pyongyang out of business.

Military intervention is highly unlikely, but the United States can pursue other actions. First and foremost is to freeze all forms of aid and to use Washington's considerable diplomatic clout to urge other nations to follow suit. The United States seemed to take this approach in late November, combining with Japan and South Korea to state that future oil shipments to North Korea would cease. But at the same time, a tanker already on its way was permitted to continue. This kind of ambivalence has marked the Bush administration's policy toward North Korea strong, get-tough statements followed by warmer actions, such as trips by State Department officials to attend Mr. Kim's birthday festivities.

Denying humanitarian assistance while millions starve is not the obvious humane response. But, the future of North Korea depends on changes in Pyongyang, and central to that is cutting off the pipeline that strengthens the regime's control.

That's because efforts to help the population also help to maintain the regime. Economic assistance is used to purchase Mercedes-Benzes and maintains the playboy lifestyle of Mr. Kim. Shipments of oil and equipment are sold to third (and generally unsavory) parties. Donations of food and clothes go only to the Workers Party elite. "Where has all the food gone to?" demanded Norbert Vollertsen, a volunteer German medic, upon his expulsion from North Korea in 2001 for criticizing the regime's human-rights abuses. "For ordinary people nothing has changed. When you see the difference between the relative luxury of Pyongyang and these starving children, you are out of words."

There are other steps the international community can take to simultaneously relieve the conditions of North Koreans and exert pressure on Pyongyang to change. One such step would be to ensure that China halts its policy of repatriating North Korean refugees and permits outside groups, notably the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to help these escapees. This isn't just a matter of convincing China that aiding North Korean refugees is a moral choice. This is a matter of enforcing China's international commitments. The country is a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, a provision of which specifically states that countries are not to repatriate refugees when their life or freedom is threatened.

Pyongyang's claims to the contrary, that is indeed the fate that befalls returned refugees. Article 117 of North Korea's penal code provides that "one who crosses the border without permission shall be punished by a sentence of three years or less labor re-education." Article 47 states more explicitly that "one who escapes to another country or to the enemy in betrayal of his motherland and people … shall be punished by at least seven years or more labor re-education. If it is a serious violation, he shall be punished by execution and forfeiture of all property."

More galling, China currently holds a seat on the U.N. executive committee regarding refugees. As bad as this is, it also provides an opportunity. Given China's own considerable problems with human rights, the threat of losing that position by a united front of other committee nations could bring enough pressure on China to reverse its policy. This is by no means an overnight task, but it should take on heightened importance in the Bush administration's efforts to create a more humane world.

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